Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Book Review: Island 731 (SPOILERS)

Yesterday, I got hold of a copy of Island 731 from my local library and read it in a single day. Now it's time to review it. The gist of the story is that some researchers studying the Great Pacific Garbage Patch come across a seemingly-abandoned island that had been used as a secret laboratory for Japan's infamous Unit 731. The island, as I just implied, isn't actually abandoned...

(image courtesy of Robinson's website)

The Good

The first part of the novel is fast and entertaining. A WWII prologue featuring a survivor of the Battle of Midway captured and experimented on by the Japanese quickly grabs the reader's attention and establishes what kind of novel this will be even though we don't get to the "mysterious island" until significantly later in the book. That's something I'm hoping to do with my own novel The Thing In The Woods, which features a monster in the prologue that isn't seen again until Chapter Five. Many of the early chapters end with cliffhangers (an attack by a great white shark, the discovery of a mass grave) that further speed the plot.

Although the reader is led to suspect one character is a traitor partway through the novel, it turns out it's both true and not true. I liked how Robinson pulled that off.

There's some foreshadowing that something with a turtle shell that's human-sized is going to be very resistant to bullets when the protagonist uses an adult sea turtle as a personal shield against an attacking great white. Yes, that looks and sounds extraordinarily goofy, but it was entertaining to see on the page.

I really liked the concept of making Unit 731 the villains. Although the Japanese war crimes against Westerners like the Bataan Death March are well-known, the Japanese crimes against the Chinese are significantly less so outside of Asia. Considering how the Chinese were Japan's more numerous victims, that's a travesty. Given how there were Japanese holdouts in the Pacific active as late as the 1970s, the idea that a bunch of Japanese mad scientists might still be operating in secret is not totally implausible.

The Bad

Unfortunately, things fall apart once we actually learn what's going on. Although perhaps Robinson was trying to make a point about how the U.S. was willing to use Unit 731's expertise after the war rather than punish them for their crimes, it would have been much more interesting if the villains were Unit 731 scientists (or their descendants) who had remained in isolation, preying on shipwreck survivors, refugees, etc. for experiment material (and presumably comfort women, given how they'd be predominately male) and maintaining (and advancing) their technology through, say, the more nationalistic elements of the Yakuza, rather than American renegades who'd taken over the project.

Some things come off as extremely derivative from other media. One of the horrors of the island is, instead of a Human Centipede, something resembling a Human Rubix Cube made up of much of the island's previous research staff. How the villain managed to overpower over a dozen people and graft them together into this horrid thing is never explained. Although it's useful for a couple disturbing moments--at the center of the mass are the villain's parents, hidden away so he'll never had to look at them, and when all of them regained consciousness the ball nearly tore itself apart--it seems rather impractical on top of being unoriginal. Also, one of the most dangerous creatures on the island are something resembling a face-hugger from the Aliens universe created by merging spiders, turtles, and I think monkeys (the tail) that reproduce within minutes by seeding other creatures.

And how the villain controls the remaining researchers and some of his scientific creations through surgically implanted bombs and has managed to condition the creatures of the island (all of them) to respond to radio pulses and certain sounds to the point he can use them as his own private army strike me as extremely impractical. Although this is helpful in making some of the villains (somewhat) sympathetic, surely Robinson could have come up with more practical ways. Although controlling people via personal explosives has been done before, the concept is rather goofy.

There are some typos--at one point, for example, "steel" is rendered "steal." And that's not the only one. One would think given how it was published in hardcover, more effort would have gone into editing it.

The Verdict

Well-done beginning all but ruined by a bad ending. 5 out of 10. Lots of wasted potential here. I'm tempted to write a "how I would have done it" version, but coming up with a title that's as cool was this one would be difficult and writing it so soon after this is just asking for a lawsuit. This could have been awesome, but it wasn't.

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